The wild and managed environment in ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Book Cover © John Howe, 2002. Display of this book-cover comprises fair-use under the 1988 Licenses, Designs and Patents Act.

Species Mentioned: Bumper article! Two armies of species, one tame and one wild.

Source: ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’. One of the most exciting Middle English stories.

Date of Source: 1385-1400.

Highlights: ‘Sir Gawain’ tells the story of a game played between the civilised, charming, boring Sir Gawain and the giant, strong, savage Green Knight. The story proves people in medieval Britain distinguished the environment as managed by humans and the wild, primordial environment. In ‘Sir Gawain’, civilisation won and we are still dealing with the complicated consequences of that ‘victory’ today.

THE TEXT AND ITS DATE (skim down for the species)

‘Sir Gawain’ (not to be confused with ‘Ywain and Gawain’) is an early Middle English text from the Stafford-Cheshire-Derby border. It is found in only one manuscript, Cotton Nero A.x. This also contains some other poems, most notably ‘Pearl’. Since all the texts of the manuscript are written in the same dialect, they have been ascribed to a single figure called the ‘Pearl Poet’.

Date-wise, the manuscript can be assigned to c.1400 based on script and style giving its texts a latest possible date of composition. One of the other texts in the manuscript (thought to be by the same author) draws on ‘The Travels of Sir John Mandeville’ from c.1357, and certain literary features and stylistic flourishes in ‘Sir Gawain’ suggest it should be regarded as later than this, perhaps c.1385-1400 (Barron, 1974, pp.25-6; Bowers, 2012, p.25; xi-xii).

The poem is very long, and the northern dialect is harder for most modern English speakers to understand than Chaucer’s East-Midlands dialect. Nevertheless the story is one of the most exciting and memorable of any medieval English piece of literature.



A huge knight dressed all in green rides into Arthur’s court during the Christmas feasting and lays down a challenge. A knight has one chance to cut off his head. In return, one year later, he will be allowed to decapitate that knight

King Arthur’s hall goes completely silent for a few minutes. Everyone looks down at their drinks. Even Arthur’s slow-witted knights suspect this may be a trick.

The giant starts to mock Arthur’s knights. I like to imagine him with his elbows bent, impersonating a chicken. This makes Arthur feel insulted so he gets up to take the giant’s quest, consequences be damned!

This is exactly the sort of idiotic, easily-manipulated bravado which makes King Arthur such a wise and just ruler in the romantic tradition. Luckily for him he is surrounded by his loyal knights, and Sir Gawain quickly offers to take the quest instead.

Sir Gawain moves nervously up, picks up an axe (he’s allowed to keep this as a momento) and decapitates the giant. Everyone laughs and starts to kick the head around. Unfortunately the game’s not over yet.

The giant walks over, picks up his head and puts it back on his shoulders. He rides out and gives Gawain a warning. If Gawain does not find him at the Green Chapel next New Year, he will hunt down Gawain instead. Not much of a choice for poor Sir Gawain! The main part of the story starts the next year as our hero begins searching for the Green Chapel.



Parrots and turtledoves


Turtledove, picture by Kev Chapman, Licensed under CC-BY-2.0.

In ‘Sir Gawain’ no single species really sticks out or plays an important role. Instead, the main significance of the environment comes when you look at large groups of those mentioned in the text together. When you do that it becomes clear that the environment is being used metaphorically, as a texture, to emphasise parts of the text which are otherwise only implicit.

For example, two animals frequently referred to are those Sir Gawain’s wears embroidered on his clothes: (ll.609-13):

[Clothes] enbrawden and bounden wyth the best gemmes
on brode sylkyn borde and bryddes [birds] on semes
as papiayes paynted peruyng [painted parrots feeding] bitwene
tortors [turtledoves] and tru lofes [knots] entayled so thyk
as mony burde [women] theraboute had ben [working] seven wynter

Parrots (psittacinae sp.) and turtledoves (S. turtur) are an interesting choice of bird for Gawain. As used as heraldic or emblematic species like here, they emphasise Gawain’s courteous and courtly nature which is said elsewhere to be his most important character trait (the reason he has a pentagram on his back). Parrots would only ever have been seen in Britain as domestic birds. Since they could be taught to speak like humans and were most commonly owned by rich people they represent the most civilised that nature can possibly become.

Turtledoves have a similar significance. They were popular in the medieval period as representations of true love, since they were thought to be monogamous for life (usually true but see: NOSR, 2008). Knights looked up to turtledoves as embodiments of chivalric romance. Not only were turtledoves not bestial like many other animals, they were actually holy and closer to God than most humans.

It’s worth explaining at this point that there was a difference between the ideal hero of early heroic literature and later romance literature. In very broad strokes, the early Middle Ages praised the heroic warrior who could defeat any enemy and delighted in combat with uncontrolled rage. The late Middle Ages praised the noble knights who fought for love and protected the weak (as long as they were also noble or holy). Gawain is a perfect example of the second type. His heraldic animals are the most civilised and courtly creatures that can be imagined.



Holly photographed by L.Miguel Bugallo Sánchez, licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0.

On the other hand, the Green Knight enters the text over Christmas, at the darkest part of the year. It is commonly suggested he represents the natural world, but I think there’s more to him than that. Quite often people think of winter as a dead time for nature; many mammals hibernate, many birds migrate while trees lose all their leaves and plants die down until the spring time. Only a few species can still be seen out and about, mainly those too stupid or too tough to leave.

I’m not sure which of those categories Arthurian knights fit into, but the Green Knight is more transparent. As he enters the narrator makes a note (l.206): ‘in his on[e] honde he hade a holyn bobbe [sprig of holly]’. Holly (I. aquifolium) is of course an evergreen shrub with sharp, spiky leaves and this passage immediately suggests an alternative interpretation. If he is a representative of nature the Green Knight is not representing a nature which is dead but one which is still wild and dangerous to humans. Holly can also represent all the festivities, feasting, games and fun of Christmas-time garland-wreaths, but this interpretation is prevented by what comes later. The Green Knight is the perfect opponent to Sir Gawain, and their battle is the battle between courtly civilisation and bestial nature.

The Pristine Wilderness

Photograph by Bob Hall, licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.

Photograph by Bob Hall, licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.

On Gawain’s search for the Green Knight’s home he has to enter what we can identify as a primordial wilderness. There are no traces of civilised humans, but Gawain is attacked by many creatures (ll.720-25):

sumwhyle wyth wormes he werres [wars] and with wolves als[o]
sumwhyle wyth wod-wos [mad men] that woned [lived] in the knarres
bothe wyth bulles and beres and bores otherwhyle
and etaynes [ettins] that hym anelede [attacked] of the heye felle [mountain]
nade [had not] he ben d[o]ughty and dryghe [strong] and dryghtyn [the Lord God] had served
douteles he hade ben ded and dreped ful ofte[n]

The landscape that Gawain is fighting through is still clear to us today if we just extract the species mentioned: wolves (C. lupus), wild bulls (B. primigenius), bears (U. arctos), wild boar (S. scrofa), not to mention dragons, wild men and ettins. If any of these species still existed in fourteenth century England they must have been incredibly rare, but all would have been at home in Britain during the first millennium B.C. These species represent nature’s powers at their strongest and most unaltered. Clearly Sir Gawain was going in the right direction!

Plants are not left out of the equation. The narrator describes them as Gawain passed through a horrible forest on Christmas Eve. He has been in the wilderness for some time and since he hasn’t seen any civilised humans he is worried he might not be able to find a place to fulfill his religious obligations in the morning (ll.740-55):

bi a mounte on the morne meryly he rydes
into a forest ful dep that ferly watz wylde
highe hilles on yche a halve and holt [lair] wodes vnder
of hore okes ful hoge [huge] a hundreth togeder
the hasel and the ha[w]ghthorne were harled al samen
with ro[u]ghe rag[g]ed mosse rayled aywhere
with mony bryddes [birds] vnblythe [sad] vpon bare twyges
that pitosly ther piped for pyne [pain] of the colde
the gome [man] vpon Gryngolet glydes hem vnder
thurgh mony misy and myre mon al hym one [alone]
carande for his costes lest he ne kever [late] schulde
to se[e] the servy[ce] of that Syre that on that self [same] nyght [that]
of a burde [woman] watz borne oure baret [saviour] to quelle
and therfore sykyng he sayde I beseche the[e] Lorde
and Mary that is myldest moder so dere
of sum herber [harbour] ther heghly I myght here masse

The plants here are just like the animals. He is in a ‘full-deep holtwood’ with hundreds of huge, ancient oak (Q. robur), hazel (C. avellana) and hawthorn (C. monogyna) trees. The area is covered in moss, but the narrator makes it clear this is not a fertile greenwood. The branches are bare and the birds look sad. For Gawain, the courtly knight of the turtledove this is a sinister and hostile environment. It is definitely not a place he can celebrate Christmas mass so Gawain prays to Christ and Mary for help.

The Civilised Garden

Castle Gardens

Photograph of St Fagans Castle by Archangel12. Licensed under CC-2.0.

His prayer is immediately answered (ll.763-70):

nade [had not] he sayned [crossed] hymself segge bot thry[c]e
er[e] he watz [a]war[e] in the wod of a won [castle] in a mo[a]te
abof a launde on a lawe [hill] loken vnder boghes
of mony borelych bole [burly trunks] aboute bi the diches
a castel the comlokest that ever knyght aghte
pyched on a praghere [meadow] a park al aboute
with a pyked palays pynned ful thik
that imbetewe[en] mony tre[es] mo[re] then two myle

The difference here to someone looking at the environment is stark and miraculous. Gawain is immediately transported to a much more human-friendly environment. There is a castle, with managed meadow-lawns and a moat. Around the moat is a park; a place where exotic animals like fallow deer (D. dama) could be kept for quick, civilised hunts and where all the trees and hedges were managed by park-keepers. Beyond the park are two miles of trees: It’s unclear whether these should be imagined to be the same hoary oaks, now being kept back by the castle’s moat or whether they should be imagined as part of the carefully managed environment of a courtly castle.

This is a place where Gawain can thrive, and he does so. He spends most of the time in bed with his host’s young wife, and he only ventures forth again a week later on New Year’s Day, the date of his appointment. He makes his way out of his managed sanctuary and back through the rugged scenery to find the Green Chapel (ll.2077-85):

thay boghen [trees] bi bonkkes [banks], ther boghes ar bare
thay clomben bi clyffes, ther clenges the colde
the heven watz uphalt bot ugly ther vnder
mist muged on the mor, malt [melting] on the mountes
ych hille hade a hatte a myst hakel huge
bro[o]kes b[o]yled and breke bi bonkkez [rocks] aboute
schyre schaterande on schorez ther thay doun schowued
wela wylle [lonesome] watz the way ther way [going] bi wo[o]d schulden
‘til hit watz zone sesoun that sunne ryses

Again Gawain has returned to the bare, inhospitable world beyond managed gardens. They climb cliffs through the night in the freezing cold and look up at hilltops covered in mist and mountains covered in snow. I won’t go into too many details because the narrative is vague at this point and the narrator described the world much better before our hero reached the castle. When Sir Gawain finally comes to the Green Chapel he is disappointed in it. It is not a chapel like he imagines at all, but a cave. Gawain describes it despairingly (l.2190)– ‘this oritore[y] is ugly with [h]erbes overgrowen’.

Of course our hero succeeds and does not get decapitated, although there is a fun twist at the end. Ultimately, Gawain’s victory is a triumph of the managed environment over the pristine wilderness.



The story of this medieval text might be fun (if difficult to understand!) but why should you care about it?

In simple terms: because the contest between a managed and unmanaged environment continues to this day.

It is only fair to point out that a modern retelling of ‘Sir Gawain’ could be very similar. In Canada and the U.S. there are about 60,000 grey wolves and brown bears in the wild, but 20,600,000 pet birds in captivity (mainly parrots and budgies) (Sillero-Zubiri et al., 2004, p.126; APPA, 2014). The UK is still famous for being full of old trees today but you would have to walk a very long way before you found a forest as old as the ones described in Gawain.

Many conservationists have campaigned for an end to unsustainable types of environmental management: deforestation, large-scale species culling, and introductions of new species. The strongest form of this philosophy is expressed by the re-wilder groups, who would like to see the restoration of a native and balanced ecosystem for each country with, for example, reintroductions of wolves and bears to their native habitats, followed by a completely ‘hands-off’ approach to the environment.

This idea deserves careful consideration. Ecosystems returned approximately to their Holocene equilibrium would be stronger and less likely to cause devastating losses to human interests. Since the year 2000 around 100,000 red deer (Cervus elaphus) have been culled each year in Scotland to prevent road traffic accidents and damage to trees. This costs millions of pounds, but a properly restored ecosystem might not need any culling at all.

New extinctions would also be less likely and we would see an increased biodiversity. In Britain for example, instead of seeing the same species over and over again (rock doves (C. livia), grey squirrels (S. carolinensis), herring gulls (L. argentatus), common rats (R. norvegicus) you would see a range of different native species, each in their own environment. An ancient woodland full of bluebells is a tourist attraction, but one with a chance of seeing wild boar, birds of prey and wildcats or lynxes might be almost as exciting as a safari to many.

On the other hand, this philosophy lacks some subtlety. You might be able to persuade people to plant trees and have ponds in large gardens, but they will still probably cut the grass and want to keep carp. Restoring biodiversity would mean unprecedented culls in some cases, like for example any attempt to restore the red squirrel (S. vulgaris) to mainland south Britain. In some cases, invasive species in one place are now endangered in their homeland and it would be irresponsible to destroy them all (e.g. Sika deer in Britain compared to east Asia). Other species were lost long before the modern period. The brown bear was lost at least a thousand years ago, and was probably very rare two thousand years ago. Should these species be reintroduced? How about species intentionally exterminated because of their danger to humans and livestock like wolves?

Even habitat-wise the decision is difficult. Humans have been managing habitats for so long that if they stop suddenly it could have disastrous consequences. It’s true that if people in Britain stop managing heaths they will quickly revert back to woodland. Modern, planted or accidentally created woodlands absolutely cannot replace ancient woodlands in biodiversity but they still provide fantastic habitat for a number of species. However heaths are also important habitats. Britain has 20% of Europe’s lowland grasslands and heathlands, and the majority of these have been lost over the last century. These provide habitat for most of Britain’s declining amphibians and reptiles (Wareham, 2008, p.97; State of Nature 2013). Heaths cannot survive without constant deforestation, cutting and management, and, practically, reptiles might not be able to survive without heaths.

What is the answer? It’s difficult to be certain. On the one hand, our current level of management seems unsustainable. However, on the other hand, not only would humans not be at home in unmanaged environments, a sudden, naïve end to environmental management would doom even more species to extinction. The key seems to be finding a sustainable future.



American Pet Products (APPA) (2014) Pet Industry Market Size & Ownership. American Pet Products Association, Retrieved 22nd of June 2014 from

Barron W (1974) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. 1998 ed. Manchester University Press.

Bowers M (2012) An Introduction to the Gawain Poet. University Press of Florida.

Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NOSR) (2008) Turtle Doves Commit Adultery. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 21, 2014 from

Sillero-Zubiri C, Hoffmann M, Macdonald, D (2004) Canids: Foxes, Wolves, Jackals and Dogs. IUCN, Cambridge.

State of Nature Partnership (2013) State of Nature 2013,

Wareham D (2008) The Reptiles and Amphibians of Dorset. The British Herpetological Society, London.

3 responses to “The wild and managed environment in ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’

  1. I am interested in the ecology descibed in SGGK. Hautdesert is described as a high forest, indeed this is likely what haut desert means. Huge hore/grey oaks a hundred together, describes this. Desert was a Cistercian term for forest, wild uncultivated land, specifically containing woods and rocks. Hautdesert, as described, is not coppice or pollarded woodland but an ancient, barely managed, mature oak woodland grown for timber and for the protection of deer and wild boar.
    Hazel and Hawthorn grow on the edges of high forests and protect the young oak saplings from browsers such as deer. English proverb, ‘The thorn is mother to the oak’. There is also the holly, which is greatest in green when groves are bare. A ‘grove’ in foresters terms means a collection of timber trees only. The holly is known as the nursemaid of the oak, again it help protects the young trees from browsers.
    Bertilak is of haut desert and confirms the green knight is from the high forest (a grove) as he holds the hollin bob in one hand and the axe in his other. We are later told that the green knight has specifically a Danish axe. The Danish axe was a felling tool used for chopping down trees, secondary use as a weapon of war. The green knights holly represents the birth of the oak and the Danish axe, its death.
    One last thing is ‘wilderness’, this was a term originally used to describe a wild uncultivated closed forest but later became a term used for woodland in general. So the wilderness of wirral actually means the forest of wirral. This information can date the original poem to no later than 1376, when wirral was disafforested. After 1376 Wirral was no longer, technically, a wilderness, it was then classed as cultivated land, no longer under the restrictions of forest law.
    All of the above forest information can be found in ‘Grazing Ecology and Forest History By F. W. M. Vera’.
    P.s. Holt woods, are also what we now call high forest. Holts are traditionally managed for their timber and game preservation.
    Thanks for such an interesting blog,


    • Deeply fascinating – thanks so much for commenting! I will definitely be reading Grazing Ecology and Forest History. Love your blog on this subject too, it is the most insightful and in-depth analysis I have ever seen on the environment of SGGK. Is this a special interest of yours?


      • Thanks Lee, yes I became interested when I found that an ancestor of mine was an under-forester (Delamere forest) and also an abbey clerk at Combermere, Cheshire. He was made constable of Beeston castle in November 1361, His name was John le clerc de Brundelegh (Brindley).


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